How a Suitcase Full of Drug Money Helped Aerosmith ‘Dream On’
Aerosmith’s debut single “Dream On” is timeless. And its creation is remarkable, considering the song was only completed thanks to a suitcase full of drug money.
The tune’s origins can be traced back several years before Aerosmith was formed. Singer Steven Tyler had grown up in a musical household: His father was a classically trained pianist. Throughout his childhood, the future rock star would lie beneath his father’s Steinway and listen to him play. This helped Tyler form his early concepts of song structure, something he’d use for the rest of his life.
“Dream On” started coming together during Tyler’s teen years, as he began developing his musical style. “‘Dream On’ came of me playing the piano when I was about 17 or 18, and I didn’t know anything about writing a song,” he later recalled in the memoir Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? “It was just this little sonnet that I started playing one day. I never thought that it would end up being a real song.”
Lyrically, the song summed up Tyler’s determination to become a star.
“It’s about dreaming until your dreams come true," the rocker noted in the band's autobiography, Walk This Way. "It's about the hunger to be somebody that Aerosmith felt in those days.”
While it took years for all of these elements to come together, the song was still not a fully formed product by the time Aerosmith began recording their self-titled debut. Tyler envisioned a certain sound to what had originally been the piano part, but as the band was struggling to make ends meet, he had no way of purchasing the keyboard he wanted to use. That’s when fate stepped in.
The exact details of what hardcore Aerosmith fans generally refer to as “the suitcase incident” remain unknown. The commonly accepted story goes something like this: While the band was working on their debut album, Tyler found a suitcase full of cash outside the group’s Boston apartment. Realizing it was likely drug money, the singer opted not to tell his bandmates about the discovery. Instead, he used the cash to purchase a $2,000 keyboard to record “Dream On” as he’d envisioned it.
Listen to Aerosmith's 'Dream On'
In his book Rocks, guitarist Joe Perry admitted to being “ignorant” regarding the money’s origin. That is until the suitcase’s original owners came looking for it. “Give us our fuckin’ money,” Perry recalled one gangster declaring as he pointed a gun at Tyler. The singer played dumb and insisted there was nothing in the suitcase but some old clothes. “Look, you hippie asshole, lying is as good as dying," the mobster responded. "I’d as soon kill you as look at you. Keep lying and you’re dead.”
Even as things got intense, Tyler continued to insist he was innocent. When Gary Cabozzi, the band’s building manager and a Vietnam vet, burst into the apartment wielding a sword, the gangsters retreated.
With their expensive new instrument in tow, Aerosmith recorded “Dream On” in October 1972. The band’s debut album came out in January 1973 but was met with general indifference. When “Dream On” was released as a single on June 27, 1973, Aerosmith finally got some attention. Even though it initially peaked nationally at only No. 59, “Dream On” became a huge hit in Boston, ranking among the most popular singles of the year. The song climbed higher when it was reissued a few years later, climbing to No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1976.